For me, many of the greatest lessons I learned in high school began on an otherwise totally mundane and regular sort of day. In fact nothing of consequence or even remotely memorable happened until I exited the building after my last class with my usual tremendous sigh of day's end relief.
I was sailing out the doors, relishing the first breaths of freedom when I walked straight into it. "It" being a group of thoughtless freshman boys playing hacky sack with a tiny almost-fledgling.
Naturally, I was appalled. Much to their annoyance, I scooped the tiny puffball up, gave the boys a hefty piece of my mind, and began inspecting the tiny creature for signs of injury.
It seemed, miraculously, unscathed.
To be honest, though, I had no experience keeping a babyish bird. I knew they were fragile, but beyond that I was at a loss. So, I put him in my shirt and popped back into the school to see if I could catch my biology teacher before she went home.
That endeavor was successful in that she was still there, but unsuccessful in that she didn't have much help to offer me regarding my newly acquired ball of fuzz. She asked if I had found a nest. I hadn't, but I thought I'd give it another shot.
So I went outside and searched everywhere I could think to search, but it was to no avail. One more trip back to her classroom resulted in my biology teacher handing me a box and saying, "Good luck."
Great. So, now what?
Upon my arrival home, my mom looked uncertain and my dad became extremely grumpy and forbade me to keep the bird before huffing off to go work on something downstairs.
Not that we make a habit out of ignoring my dad, but a few hours later when I decided (based on a hunch) that this baby bird might thrive on a diet of gerber chicken puree baby food (I figured it was loaded with protein which is the same thing worms are made out of), my mom put me in the car and took me to the grocery store to get what little fluff ball needed. I noted the irony that I was choosing to feed a bird, well, bird in order to keep it alive. But, I figured this was the best idea I had, and those chickens were already dead. Don't judge me.
Of course, the first night with a tiny animal is always a big deal. Oh how hard I prayed that he would still be alive when I woke the next day!
When he was, indeed, alive and well to greet the morning, I decided it would be safe to give him a name. So, since the birdwatcher book my grandma had given me as a child identified him as a mockingbird, it only seemed appropriate to call him Scout.
I found a shoe box and lined it with wash clothes, cut slightly too-large holes in the top, and tucked Scout's baby food and a straw in the corner before nestling Scout in warmly and heading off to school.
As one might imagine, that was quite a day.
It started off with my English class, in which I discovered that the holes in the top of the shoe box were slightly too big when Scout insisted on poking his head through them and chirping at the everyone. My attempts to keep him inside the box distinctly resembled that old arcade game called whack-a-mole.
When that class ended, I found myself confronted in the hallway by a teacher and told to go to the principal's office.
I was not a teenager who handled confrontation well, and on my way there, I could already feel my throat starting to tighten.
By an incredible twist of fate, our villainous principal was out for a week, recovering from having melanoma removed from his face.
So my meeting was with the next man down in the chain of command. A man I (until this moment) had little to no experience with. The assistant principal, Coach Gremmer.
This guy was a hulking, intimidating, beast of a man. He had to have been eight feet tall, with shoulders as broad as the hallway was wide.
High school senior version of me just knew this wasn't going to end well.
But I shuffled into his office with Scout in tow, nonetheless, and tried to say "Hello, you asked for me?" without allowing my voice to betray how badly I wanted to freak out.
"I hear you have a bird.", he stated, with a giant voice that matched his giant self, "and you know as well as I do that it's against school policy to have a bird here. You'll have to go home and leave it there."
That was all it took. I totally cracked. The dam broke. And there I sat in front of giant Coach Gremmer, sobbing like a child and choking out, "But... but... nobody in my family can take him to work with them, and I don't know what else to do! I don't want him to (sniff ) DIE!!!"
I wiped my eyes somewhat dry and looked up to find (astonishingly) that Coach Gremmer had joined me in my weeping. He dried his eyes too and sniffled, "I wasn't trying to be the Big Bad Wolf! And I certainly didn't mean to make you cry! You can keep bringing the bird to school, just... try to keep him in your back pack during class, ok?"
I promised I would do my best, and he dismissed me.
Looking back on that moment as an adult and realizing how much trouble Coach Gremmer might have gotten in for allowing me to continue keeping Scout with me is overwhelming. I feel intense gratitude in my heart for that moment.
Another incident that still feeds my soul to this day occurred a few days later in English class.
I was not a part of the "popular" preppy crowd at my high school, but I never experienced any blatant shunning until Scout entered the scene. I was surprised at the number of students who opposed my plan to care for this fledgling until it was ready to fly away. For a teenager, it was a bit intense at times.
This shunning had already begun within a few days of my having Scout, and I was feeling the impact of it in a pretty big way. So, imagine the gratitude I felt when a boy who was popular with pretty much everyone chose to continue being my friend in the middle of all this.
After walking down the hall on my way to English class, enduring various sneering comments about that "disease infested, disgusting bird that's going to die anyway", and dodging one sophomore who tried to steal Scout in his shoe box out of my arms and smash it, I arrived at my class disheartened and disheveled.
I plopped the box down on my desk and collapsed in a heap with my head in my arms.
Imagine my shock when Mr. Mcpopularpants (my friend Brian) came over, scrumfled my hair, and asked how Scout was doing. He then proceeded to take the lid off the shoe box to check on him, declare gleefully that he looked healthy, and then tenderly tuck a washcloth around him for added warmth.
It was precious, and I was encouraged.
As the weeks passed by and Scout grew out of his pin feathers and into his adult feathers, he began to look sleek and grown up.
One day, another friend of mine (Chase) teased me as we walked outside, "You're not a bird. You'll never teach him to fly!"
I had worried about this, and I had spent afternoons giving Scout tiny tosses onto soft things so he could practice flapping his wings. I told Chase that we had been practicing and prepared to demonstrate with a gentle toss.
I never expected Scout to fly from my hands, over Chase's head, and into a tree like he did. It was a perfect moment... until Chase and I both realized we had no idea how to get him down. I was concerned, and Chase thought it was hilarious. He threw a few pine cones at Scout and then proceeded on his merry, laughing way.
Fortunately I didn't have to stand there with my arms crossed staring up at Scout for long before he got hungry and came down.
And that was the thing. In stories about birds, they make it out like the biggest challenge is teaching them to fly. But it's not true. The biggest challenge is teaching them to eat on their own.
When Scout learned to fly, the taunting from those who opposed got worse. They thought I was being some kind of freak for not letting him go already.
One day, as I sat outside on the senior deck (I understood how it would gross everyone out to have a bird in the cafeteria) with Scout propped on the edge of my messenger bag, contentedly, one unkind boy looked on him with disdain and told me that if he ever so much as saw Scout again, he would kill him in front of me. He then went on to describe how he would do it until I left the table, tossing the rest of my unfinished lunch in the trash.
That evening, I sat on the stairs in my home and wept. I didn't know what to do. I believed deep inside that Scout wasn't ready to be on his own. Yes, he could fly, kind of. But he wasn't a strong flyer yet. Certainly not strong enough that I would feel comfortable leaving him outside at the mercy of our dogs and our cat! And he also wasn't eating on his own. I had tried to encourage him with crickets and meal worms but it simply seemed that he wasn't ready.
I regret to say that the jerkwads won that round. I dug an old birdcage out of the basement, and put him in it the next morning before school. I left him with water and an ample supply of crickets and the like in the bottom of the cage. I hoped he would catch on. I glanced back one last time before I headed out the door and noted that Scout, the wild bird, looked completely and totally un-natural in that cage. It broke my heart but I braced myself to muscle through the day without him.
When I returned home at the end of the day, I raced up the stairs and threw open my bedroom door only to have my deepest fear confirmed. There he lay, limp and still on the bottom of the cage.
My stomach dropped like a rock, and I rushed to him.
I held him in my hands, and tears of relief spilled down my cheeks. He was still warm. And he was still breathing.
I fed him and he ate. And oh, how I prayed.
That was the last time I would ever allow anyone to intimidate me out of following through on my convictions.
Scout came to school with me the next day. My English teacher found me in my computer science class and allowed Scout to perch on his finger for an inspection. He said to me, "It's probably illegal to have this bird at school, isn't it?". To which I replied, "Most likely". He chuckled and added that Scout was looking good and regal before he handed him back to me and went on his way.
I took up leaving Scout outside for short somewhat supervised lengths of time when I was home. The dogs and the cat, of course, I dragged indoors so they wouldn't bother or maim him.
One afternoon when Scout was outside, a sudden downpour struck. I went outside to check on him and found myself standing in the rain laughing hysterically at my silly bird who didn't know to get out of a downpour to protect his feathers! I hollered for him to come on down without thinking that he might actually try. Without a second of hesitation, he launched himself, sopping wet feathers and all, into the air... and dropped like a brick. He even landed with a thud, despite my athletically challenged attempt to catch him.
This was a hearty bird. I'm convinced that it was my prayers much more than my nurture that kept him alive and thriving through all of this. Despite his fall, he was solid. I brought him inside and blew is feathers dry with a hair drier. He sat on my desk looking disgruntled.
Another thing I took up doing was attempting to teach him to eat on his own by putting him on the front porch with some crickets and then running inside and upstairs to hide and watch him from a window. If he knew I was present, he would only look at his food, and then throw his head back and squawk at me. This was, of course, his way of demanding that I drop food down his throat.
Once I did my usual run-upstairs-and-hide only to look out the window and see my big, burly dad (who had grown secretly rather attached to Scout), slip out the front door, look around to make sure no one was watching, and then sneak and feed Scout a cricket.
I may never stop giggling over that.
Time marched on as it tends to do. Scout finally learned to eat on his own, and his flying skills got stronger. Eventually I was completely comfortable leaving him outside, at home alone, even with the dogs out while I was gone.
I would come home from school and whistle at the tree-line, and Scout would come swooping down onto my shoulder and we'd go inside.
He would usually go back out again, but reliably he would come peck on my window around nightfall. I would let him in and he would flutter up to the top of my closet's door and zonk out up there for the night.
At last there came a night that I wasn't home for that nightly tradition. I was out with friends, and Scout spent his first night outside.
In the morning, I rubbed my eyes and went out on the front porch to eat my fruitloops and watch the sun come up.
Scout flew down and chirped a greeting.
To be honest, it turned out to be more of a farewell. When he flew off into the sunrise that morning, it was to be the last I ever saw of him.
A few days later, my dad plunked down on the couch and said, "Hey, where has Scout been lately?". He looked sad.
I smiled, "He flew away, Dad. That's what we wanted, remember?"
I hold on to this story. I cherish it. Because naysayers are everywhere. They will say "don't", and they will say "can't" , and they will look at your convictions and cross their arms and call you silly.
But the naysayers of my teenage-hood did not get to witness my little mockingbird as he soared into the sunrise.
And neither would I have, had I listened to them.